Ed Glassman
Ed Glassman

Mid-Career Creativity and Productivity Slump: What to Do about It

In 1953, Herbert Lehman published “Age and Achievement,” in which he suggested that scientific achievement peaked between 30 and 40 years of age, and declined after that.

Many studies confirm this theory. One such study is reported in Chapter 10 of “Scientists In Organizations,” by D. C. Pelz and F. M. Andrews published in 1976. Their results are very pertinent today.

Over 1,300 scientists and engineers were studied:

–641 in 5 companies (electronics, electrical equipment, glass, ceramics, and pharmaceuticals);

–526 in 5 government laboratories (weapons guidance, animal diseases, agricultural products, and physical sciences);

–144 faculty in 7 departments of a major university.

Productivity was evaluated in the following ways:

— Professional papers published and patents obtained in the past five years; — Unpublished reports circulated within the company in the past five years;   — Overall usefulness to the organization and contributions to specialized field of knowledge rated by colleagues.

The results are startling. All groups showed a peak in productivity at about 45 years of age, much lower productivity at age 50, and a small rise in productivity at about age 55. The findings on engineers in development laboratories are of special interest since they resemble most technical groups found in industry.

Their productivity (as measured by contributions and overall usefulness to the organization) was highest between ages 45 and 49. Productivity was much lower between ages 50 to 54, and it was slightly higher in ages 55 and older.

What could account for this mid-career productivity sag followed by a mild recovery? Self-reliance or a desire for self-direction seemed important.

Engineers who were self-motivated to work on their own ideas, who desired more freedom, and who were curious and stimulated by their work had higher levels of productivity at ages 45 to 49 than those with weak self-motivation and weak desire to work on their own ideas.

Most interesting, the productivity sag seen past age 50 was not as great in engineers who showed self-reliance and desired self-direction, and their recovery over age 55 was stronger. Thus, strong self-motivation seems important to reducing the mid-career productivity sag.

What to do about the mid-career productivity sag? Some general approaches are useful.

First: Accept it as normal. Look for it. Talk about it in a supportive way. If handled well, it is not the end of a fruitful career or the start of a permanent decline.

Second: Help younger people prepare for the productivity sag with early career planning to reduce or prevent it. Plan for renewal at appropriate times using sabbaticals, job rotations, courses, training, advanced degrees, etc.

Third: Consider ways to revive self-motivation and involvement in older people. Give them choices that include new projects, transfers, and additional training. Allow them to become intrapreneurs or to move into consultant or administrative roles. Train them to be mentors and supportive helpers of younger people.

Fourth: Assume the productivity sag is not inevitable or irreversible. The effects of age can be modified. Special training in self-reliance and assertiveness may help people want to be more self-directed.

Fifth: Read the book by Pelz and Andrews. Other chapters in it are also instructive. For example, coordination of work seems to be very important to creativity and productivity. Moderate autonomy, not too loose and not too tight, seems to work better than either extreme.

Total freedom seems to be counter-productive to creativity and productivity in that many people lose touch with challenge and their colleagues when left alone too much. Moderate distraction and interaction with colleagues is helpful. Teams are very beneficial to creativity and productivity in this regard.

Sixth: And read my 1986 article:

“MANAGING FOR CREATIVE THINKING: BACK TO BASICS IN R&D.” In R&D Management, Volume 16, Pages 175-183 (1986).

Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University in Palo Alto, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, and a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International. His book: “Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best,” is available here (two books in one). His book: “R&D CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION HANDBOOK: A Practical Guide To Improve Creative Thinking and Innovation Success At Work” is available here.

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.